This was a question the Employment Tribunal (“ET”) was recently asked to consider in the case of Crossley Farms Limited and others.
Background to the case
George Conisbee, a vegetarian, worked at the Fritton Arms Hotel as a waiter for approximately 4 months. On arriving at work one day he was told off for wearing an un-ironed shirt which included shouting at him in front of customers. Two days later Mr Conisbee resigned.
Mr Conisbee later issued proceedings in the ET for unpaid notice and alleging he had suffered discrimination on the grounds of religion and belief, arguing that his “genuine belief” in his vegetarianism amounted to a protected characteristic. The discrimination Mr Conisbee complained of included being ridiculed for not eating meat and being called gay because he was a vegetarian.
Counsel for both parties put forward detailed reasons as to why vegetarianism was or was not a philosophical belief capable of protection.
The ET’s decision
The ET accepted that Mr Conisbee is a vegetarian and that he holds a genuine belief in his vegetarianism.
The ET also held that the claimant believed in vegetarianism and that the world would be a better place if animals were not killed for food. However, the ET concluded that that was not a belief capable of protection as it is was not enough to have an opinion based on some real, or perceived, logic.
The Tribunal considered, whether the belief was weighty and a substantial aspect of human life and behaviour. In answering the question the ET favoured the respondent’s argument that vegetarianism is not about human life and behaviour, it is a life style choice and in the claimant’s view believing that the world would be a better place if animals were not killed for food. The ET held this was clearly an admirable sentiment, but could not altogether be described as relating to a weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour.
The ET also considered whether the claimant’s belief attained a certain level of “cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance”. The ET accepted there are many vegetarians across the world, however, the reason for being a vegetarian differs greatly. Vegetarians adopt the practice for many different reasons; lifestyle, health, diet, concern about the way animals are reared for food and personal taste. The ET stated that having a belief relating to an important aspect of human life or behaviour is not enough in itself for it to have a similar status or cogency to a religious belief.
The Tribunal therefore concluded, on balance, they were not persuaded vegetarianism amounted to a philosophical belief capable of protection under the Equality Act 2010.
Whilst we do not usually report on first instance decisions, the question of whether an employee’s convictions amount to a philosophical belief continues to be a cause of uncertainty for employers. This case however does offer some guidance for employers and confirms the difference between a deeply held ethical belief and a lifestyle choice.